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Ghost Rider

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[rating:1]
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Peter freakin’ Fonda

I watched “Ghost Rider” so you won’t have to.

Director Mark Steven Johnson, the visionless hack who killed any chance of the words “Daredevil” and “franchise” appearing in the same sentence, returns to write and direct the screen debut of a third-tier Marvel character — and proves that while his technical competence as a director continues to grow, he hasn’t gotten any better at story, character, emotion or logic. Even more than in “Daredevil,” characters are moved around like pieces in a ten-year-old’s chess game, going where they go because they’re part of a vague and ineffective overall strategy, not because they have any will of their own.

Ghost Rider“ is the story of Johnny Blaze, motorcycle stunt rider in a bad hairpiece, who sells his soul to the devil — or A devil, because the movie steps gently around whether Peter Fonda (yes, Peter Fonda) is playing The Great Satan or just some bum named Mephistopheles. In exchange for his father’s health (of which Johnny is, of course, immediately cheated) Johnny is called upon to become a Ghost Rider, “the devil’s bounty hunter,” and this means he has to fight some other demon guys, who want, like, the deed to a bunch of people’s souls, said deed having been stolen by an Old West Ghost Rider. Because, um … the demons? They don’t like each other, right? Yeah, and, if, um, the other demons get the souls from the devil-demon, then, like, that’ll be way worse than just the devil having them … because … um … otherwise, there’s no movie?

Selling his soul to the devil meant Johnny couldn’t be with his teenage love, Roxanne, because heroes’ weird destinies are required to force solitude on them (and because girls are really yucky, anyway, and totally not allowed in the tree fort) but soon the adult Johnny — hey look, Nicolas Cage — meets her and they act like, rather than abandoning her without a word when they were meant to run off together, he’d instead eaten her last french fry or something. It’s high romance in the tradition of George Lucas: a zombie kind of juvenile love.

Never mind romance, which takes two (at least) Johnson cannot build even one character. The Ghost Rider special effect is in no way believable as an extension of Cage’s Johnny Blaze. Though, I have to say, if you want someone to write a character who has no soul, Mark Steven Johnson is the man to hire. Cage offsets his hick-machismo job as the new Evel Knievel by listening to the Carpenters, laughing at monkeys on television and eating candy from martini glasses and abstaining from alcohol. When his love interest, Eva Mendes, is stood up on their first date since high school, she sits at the table and pulls a magic eight-ball out of her purse, consults it, and puts it away. Johnson believes interesting quirks add up to character. He’s wrong. And the quirks aren’t interesting.

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So, where were we? Cage becomes Ghost Rider, eventually, and sometimes he fights cops, sometimes demons, and one time, a conveniently random mugger, whom he torments with his “penance stare.” “Look into my eyes,” intones the Ghost Rider, even though he has no eyes, just empty, flame-licked sockets. (Oh, also, at one point he whistles, even though he has no lips.)

Ah, but don’t start me on the dialogue. No, okay, start me on the dialogue. Here, as scribbled in the dark in my skinny little notebook, is actual dialogue from this movie: “The thing about legends is … sometimes they’re true.” “You ain’t makin’ the choice — the choice is makin’ you.” “Shh … you’re steppin’ on Karen Carpenter.” “I will retire him just like I will retire you — father!” “Sorry — all out of mercy.” “It feels like my skull is on fire.” “Soon we’ll have the contract and then you’ll be only a footnote in the new history of Hell!” “Now we know his weakness. Hmmmm…” “A man who’s got the guts to sell his soul to the devil for love has got the power to change the world!” “My name is Leeeeeeegion … for we are maaaaannnnyyyyyy …” “It’s been me since I made the deal. I’m the only one who can walk in both worlds. I’m … the Ghost Rider!” “All of your world, all of your souls, will be miiiiiiine now!” “Wherever innocent blood is spilled, it’ll be my father’s blood, and I’ll be there … the spirit of vengeance … fighting fire with fire!” And, when asked where he’ll go now, the victorious Johnny Blaze says, “Wherever the road takes me. I guess.” And do not forget the insane-as-the-Joker laughter from Cage and assorted villains.

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Johnson’s failure to provide a single scene in the film that feels right, that has emotional resonance or even more than the most superficial association with the collection of arbitrary circumstances meant to be a plot, is stunning. There’s just no point where this film goes well, unless you think watching a regular cheesy flame-painted motorcycle transform into the Demon Chopper From Hell is cool. Then you have that to look forward to, and it’ll totally be worth ten bucks and two hours out of your life. But otherwise, this film’s flaws are leeeeegion. The audience was visibly bored and contemptuous much of the time, and despite some technical slickness, the tepid action and competent effects are never exciting. The movie, like its character, has no soul.